Bill to focus on Sentencing Commission

A bill sitting on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk could gut the commission that advises the governor and legislators on how best to safely relieve the state’s overcrowded prison system, members of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission said Friday.

Commission members spent much of the day drafting a letter asking Jindal to veto the legislation, House Bill 743, which he said he would not do.

But the lawmakers behind HB743 say the measure guts nothing. It merely reminds the Sentencing Commission members that they have strayed too far from their original mission.

“It was just a subtle reminder of what the Sentencing Commission is supposed to do,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the legislation and is a member of the commission.

As vice-chair of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, she said she had heard complaints about the commission looking into areas not specifically linked to prison populations and sentencing, such as pretrial proceedings.

But the head of the chairman Sentencing Commission, 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky L. Babin, says he’s confused by the wording of the bill.

“If our scope is limited to the review of criminal sentences, then our work is pretty much concluded. We could go our merry way,” Babin said. “It’s a state-created appointed body they can set forth whatever task they want us to task … But I would like some clarification of what we can and cannot work on.”

The panel has reviewed the state criminal code. The commission analyzes state laws seeking to repeal those declared unconstitutional, streamlining the statutes so they are more fair, correcting inconsistencies where they exist. The commission also is looking at how well prepared prisoners are to rejoin society, if they had enough training and education.

“There are 45,000 inmates. Only 5,000 are lifers. That means 40,000 are going to walk out one day,” Babin said.

A last-minute amendment added on the Senate floor by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, “guts much of the work in which the sentencing commission has engaged over the last several years,” according to a memo circulated among the Sentencing Commission members.

When he was in the Louisiana Legislature, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, sponsored the legislation that created the Sentencing Commission. He said the state was spending about $600 million annually on incarceration. Louisiana, proportionally, throws more people in jail than any other place in the world, yet still has high crime rates.

“What they should be focused on is how to keep the state from spending hundreds of millions of dollars by locking people up instead of being smart on crime,” Richmond said, adding that he supports HB743.

“It’s putting blinders on the commission saying, ‘this is the issue we asked you to look at but you keep ignoring … Don’t go into places because its popular and it provides funding for the courts,’ ” Richmond said.

Morrell said he was angered that the Sentencing Commission had done exhaustive research on marijuana convictions in Louisiana, yet did not pass along its findings or attend the hearings of legislation aimed at reducing sentences for simple possession.

“I’m offended that at the same time the Legislature passing a 99-year sentence for heroin distribution (on Thursday), the commission was voting to ask the governor to veto this bill,” Morrell said. “They need to focus on their job.”

Jindal said he wouldn’t veto HB743. “This wasn’t something we proposed. But this was something that passed through the Legislature unanimously. We don’t feel strongly enough about it to override the will of the Legislature to veto it.”